The 1967 Detroit Uprising and the Failure of the Criminal Justice System

(Detroit/Annapurna Pictures)

Standing before judge Robert Columbo, a Detroiter made a standard defendant’s request to be released on his own recognizance. He had been accused of looting, one of hundreds arrested within the first forty-eight hours of what would become known as the Detroit uprising. “You can’t get a personal bond in this court. You’re nothing but lousy, thieving looters,” Columbo responded. The accused reminded him of constitutional protections: “You have to prove that.” Visibly embarrassed, Columbo shot back, “We will.”1

Scenes like this played out time and again during the week-long uprising in July 1967. Detroit’s criminal court, called Recorder’s Court, operated round-the-clock that week, arraigning the 7,200 individuals swept up by Detroit police, the Michigan National Guard, and the U. S. Army. Judges’ decisions meant thousands were effectively denied bail and crammed into the police garages, buses, and department store basements that became makeshift jails.

Amidst the flurry of fiftieth anniversary remembrances last summer, few remarked upon the courts. Despite the fact that every account of the uprising relates the figure of 7,200 arrests, we understand little about what happened to these mostly poor and Black folks after their arrest. What kind of justice did they find? The anecdote above is revealing of the courts they walked into: hostile, withholding of the presumption of innocence, and unconcerned with due process. Fifty years ago this May, the Michigan Law Review (MLR) published a scathing review of Recorder’s Court’s conduct during the uprising, showing how systematic judicial misconduct was. The report shows that if we look at uprisings from the vantage point of the bench, we see that judges participated in railroading Black Detroiter’s constitutional rights.

Notions of judicial autonomy—ideas that judges administer justice fairly, as detached and independent observers—hold an enduring place in the public imagination. Judges are seen as providing necessary checks on other arms of the state; in the case of criminal courts, they are thought of as able to rein in the powers of prosecutors and police. But the Michigan Law Review report reminds us that judges do not operate outside of race and class biases. Far from safeguarding against police misconduct and prosecutorial overreach, judges often relinquished their autonomy and acted as the police’s enforcement arm. Looking squarely at judicial conduct at a time when it is forcefully tested, as it was during the Detroit uprising, we see a larger brutality at work in the criminal justice system. Rather than the odd case of misconduct, the courts abridged Detroiters’ rights as a rule during the uprising. Columbo was no bad apple; the court itself was a poisoned orchard.

MLR’s observers “spent countless hours in Detroit’s Recorder’s Court” over months speaking to defendants, judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors. Foremost in their minds was the court’s operation during the uprising itself. Wayne County Prosecutor William Cahalan had rubber stamped ninety-eight percent of warrants and explicitly asked judges to help him “keep people off the streets” by imposing high bail levels up to $10,000.

Nearly all willingly complied. Executive Judge Vincent Brennan upped the ante, encouraging his colleagues to set bonds up to $25,000. “We must keep these people off the streets,” he told a Detroit News reporter 2. They also effectively suspended habeas corpus and most looked the other way on what were in fact several hundred illegal curfew arrests. Because officials initially failed to state that curfew violations would constitute a misdemeanor offense, arrests made on the basis of the original proclamation were unlawful. Most judges not only upheld these illegal arrests; they set extraordinary bonds of $10,000 or $15,000. Even more incredibly, Brennan at first instructed the sheriff not to honor any bonds before checking with him!

Judicial misconduct extended to other due process rights. During arraignments on the warrant, judges lined up whole groups of people at once. Two observers attested to seeing a judge assemble “a group of fifteen or twenty unrepresented prisoners before the bench” before telling them, “‘You’re accused of entering without breaking, your bond is $10,000, your examination is set for August 1.’” The justice then lined up a second group and said, “‘You heard what I said to them, the same applies to you’.”3 Even if judges didn’t arraign whole groups at once, they rarely considered individual circumstances in bond decisions.

Such a system meant many defendants were never properly informed of the charges against them, let alone of their rights. Many went without counsel. Most Detroit lawyers, including the organized bar the MLR noted, made no attempt to intervene and provide counsel. Even when individual lawyers made themselves available, most jurists objected. Only three judges even allowed legal representatives entrance to their courtrooms.

Amidst criticism for failures to inform defendants of their rights, Brennan and others insisted that circumstances were exceptional, that “expediency” was necessary. Not only did Brennan’s “keep them off” the street remark show the lie to such a justification, but also the actions of one judge demonstrated that judicial conduct that upheld due process was possible.

Judge George Crockett Jr. had only been elected to a judgeship in 1966, but he quickly established himself as one of the court’s truly independent jurists. As the MLR report made clear, he was appalled by his peers’ decisions. When Brennan proposed a high-bail policy, Crockett responded that he “intended to exercise” judicial responsibility in upholding reasonable bail protections. Crockett welcomed the indigent-serving Neighborhood Legal Services to advise defendants. They carried out interviews with individuals who had been arrested and used telephones that Crockett had brought in for them in order to verify information that could not otherwise be ascertained because of missing case files.

Utilizing such assistance, Crockett individualized bail levels. Over half of the defendants were held on bonds of less than $2,000 and one in ten were released on their own recognizance. The highest bail level he set that week was $5,000, in only a few cases. Along with one other judge, Crockett warned the sheriff that if he did not honor bonds he would be held in contempt of court.

After the uprising, Crockett spoke out against the actions of the bench. Even his own bail levels were higher than they should have been, he conceded. Crockett declared that racism shaped judicial conduct during the uprising: “Racist? Try to imagine what our system of justice—and those who administer it—would have required if these defendants had been white or rich. Hundreds of cases can be cited to show that for such defendants personal recognizance would be the only requirement for their immediate release.”

Crockett’s denunciations notwithstanding, the damage had been done. Black Detroiters paid the price. Eighty-three percent of those arrested were African American. The courts were responsible for cramming 1,700 individuals into Detroit’s main jail—a facility with a 1,200-person capacity. Police detained about 1,000 other persons in an underground garage for over twenty-four hours. Still others were held on buses, in a department store basement, and at the Detroit River island of Belle Isle Park. Food and water access were scarce for many. Countless individuals were held for days without the ability to contact family.

In further evidence that the police, prosecutors, and judges had all cooperated to “keep people off the streets” during the uprising, many individuals found that when they went before a judge again, the case against them fell away. Roughly thirty percent of curfew arrestees were not prosecuted.4 By spring of 1968, with half of the 3,200 looting cases cleared, sixty percent had resulted in dismissal and only two of the original charges had resulted in convictions. As Crockett saw it, “The truth of the matter is that in the overwhelming majority of the cases the police and the prosecutor simply charged more than they could possibly prove.” In their decisions regarding bail and due process, Crockett’s peers supported these excesses. Little wonder, then, that famed Black attorney Gaidi Obadele recalled, “Recorder’s Court was a pigpen.”

While the figure of 7,200 arrests is mentioned in every account of the Detroit uprising, what is not appreciated is that most of these arrests were baseless. This figure is, in fact, evidence of how most police, prosecutors, and judges ran amok during the uprising.

As we recognize the ways the criminal justice system failed Detroiters during the uprising, we must take care to view the system as a whole. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Detroit highlights one of the most infamous tragedies of the uprising–the police killing of three young men in the Algiers Motel. However, it strongly suggests that the injustices were perpetuated by the police and were a mere matter of bad apples. Telling the story of Detroit’s July 1967 uprising from the perspective of the Michigan Law Review’s report shows how false this narrative is. Black Detroiters were not dealing with bad apples; they were dealing with a poisoned orchard. In the wake of the uprising, Black Power activists forwarded, as Austin McCoy has written, “visions of an independent Black Detroit.” For most, the uprising showed that an independent bench would be crucial in this new Detroit.

  1.  “The Administration of Justice in the Wake of the Detroit Civil Disorder of July 1967,” Michigan Law Review 66 (7) (May 1968): 1573.
  2. “The Administration of Justice in the Wake of the Detroit Civil Disorder of July 1967,” 1550.
  3. “The Administration of Justice in the Wake of the Detroit Civil Disorder of July 1967,” 1547-48.
  4.  Ronald Goldfarb, Interim Report to the President’s Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders: Model Emergency Program for the Administration of Justice, Draft, p. 11, in Civil Rights during the Johnson Administration, 1963-1969, Part V: Records of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.
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Say Burgin

Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the ​educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.​